CRAWFORD: The truth about National Signing Day in Robeson County

By Brad Crawford

February 4, 2014

You won’t see television crews barreling through the doors at Red Springs High or a table of hat choices being mixed around at Purnell Swett. Ceremonies at Fairmont and Lumberton will be relatively quiet despite programs boasting the area’s best players on each side of the ball.

High school football’s most noteworthy offseason event will come and go without fervor in St. Pauls and Rowland.

The spectacle that is National Signing Day rarely reaches Robeson County, an area starved of Division I talent over the last several years due to economic challenges and difficulties with national, college-entrance tests. Our players aren’t bombarded with calls from big-name coaches during their junior and senior seasons and rarely receive weekend getaways on official visits.

In fact, even for the best, just getting a letter is a big deal.

“It’s nice to know you’re wanted on someone’s board,” said Red Springs quarterback Blake Greene, the 2012 1A state player of the year who ranks third in state history with 151 career touchdowns. “But I don’t want to be someone’s fifth pick or the replacement for someone who didn’t sign. I want to go somewhere I’m wanted. Recruiting can be pretty frustrating.”

Today marks the start of decision time for all uncommitted prep seniors across the country who nervously jot their names on binding college contracts. No one knows if that career will still exist or be fumbled away by the end of their eligibility, but we’re told to cheer anyway, text opposing fans about the incoming bounty and generate excitement involving a 17-year-old kid’s move-in day.

Across several networks, ESPN will glorify NSD for the ninth straight year with 11 consecutive hours of non-stop coverage including 13 on-air commitments throughout the day. Analysts rarely ask about players’ intended majors because, after all, we’re only supposed to care about how they fit into the offense and their projected spot on the depth chart.

It should be noted this is for the 1 percent only — the Division I guys.

“There’s a need for immediate gratification with this generation of kids and we have to tell most of them it doesn’t work that way,” Coltharp said. “Just because you’re good around here doesn’t mean you’re good everywhere. Robeson County kids don’t understand that signing day’s nationwide and these coaches are betting their houses on these players. It’s a business.”

Instead of the free education and boundless opportunity hanging above their heads, most prep athletes — even lesser-known standouts — imagine dollar signs because this is how players like Jadeveon Clowney blossomed in front of the camera when he picked South Carolina over Clemson and Alabama in 2010.

“There’s a sensationalism part of it with everyone wanting to have the ESPN special,” Coltharp said. “That’s not how it works for most of them.”

The major difference between an all-conference defensive end at South Robeson and the former Gamecocks star?

Clowney was a 6-foot-6, 265-pound prep senior who was already receiving rave reviews from professional scouts about his upside while starring on Friday nights in Rock Hill, S.C.

Visions of grandeur in our area based on athletic potential should take a back seat to conceivable professional goals instead.

“I think those illusions happen everywhere,” Fairmont coach Randy Ragland said. “The reality is everybody isn’t Clowney and only a very small number of players make it to the NFL. It’s important for them to understand a free education is a gift.”

Stop for a moment and appreciate the real success unfolding locally on NSD: Using their success on the field as the kick-starter, several student-athletes are laying the groundwork for their futures in higher education.

Fairmont quarterback and 2013 Heisman Jarrod Neal is an exemplary example of this, an ideal student body representative for the Golden Tornadoes. His numbers — 4,000 yards and 51 touchdowns — are gaudy, but what will that highlight footage mean three years from now when he’s studying to be an engineer?

Next to nothing.

What fans don’t see is Neal’s community service work as a student tutor in math, helping others before practice and acting as a role model for junior varsity players.

The stuff coaches can’t teach.

“Jarrod’s such a smart young man, both on and off the field,” Ragland said. “I tell everyone that he could finish my sentences for me this season. He always knew what I was thinking when we were out there. Any college is lucky to have this type of student-athlete.”

Area defensive player of the year and all-conference linebacker Demetri Sheridan, who was recently named scholar athlete of the month, doesn’t have any offers on signing day because he’s under 6-feet and not as fast as the blue-chippers.

It appears Lumberton’s tackling machine and honor roll student will have to attend a non-scholarship Division III program to keep playing.

And that’s something Sheridan says he’s willing to do.

“Sometimes, you have to just look at the tape and know you’re getting a football player,” said Ron Cook, Sheridan’s former coach with the Pirates. “He’s a great kid, a coachable kid. College coaches are often too obsessed over measurables.”

Greene’s in a similar predicament based on his size. Catawba was one of the first programs to reach out to the Red Devils’ captain although the Indians don’t see the record-setting passer as a quarterback at the next level.

“I’ve had several DI coaches tell me if he’s 6-1, he’s a five-star recruit,” Coltharp said. “But we don’t dwell on those things. We’ve tried educating Blake and his family since the beginning on the entire process. There’s no doubt he can play football at any level, but a lot of it is out of his control. There’s nothing he can do about being a 5-foot-9 quarterback.”

Greene has come to grips with not meeting the ideal size requirement to play big-time college football and admits he was often nervous when meeting college coaches in person.

“When they looked at me, it’s like they were pondering something,” Greene said. “They already knew my strength, my speed and my abilities from all the combines, but were quick to judge my height and weight.”

None of Robeson County’s signees are future NFL players, but each could blossom into community leaders, teachers or even doctors. That’s not to say a talented wide receiver like Tyler Maynor won’t shine at UNCP, but his life after college will be dictated by what transpires in the classroom.

The same goes for teammate Chuck Oxendine, a two-time all-county linebacker at Purnell Swett. Oxendine anxiously awaited an offer from Wake Forest after the Demon Deacons showed early interest, but the call never came.

“They’re both outstanding young men with bright futures,” said Swett coach Mark Heil. “UNCP is getting two good athletes.”

Some of the area’s other all-county players will accept preferred walk-on roles just to have the opportunity to perform while others will shine at athletic scholarship-free programs with financial assistance.

Junior college is an option for ones that didn’t take the school part of the equation seriously enough.

“A lot of kids think if they don’t sign on NSD, they aren’t going to sign,” Coltharp said. “It’s a common misconception. I’ve always told my players it’s better to go where you’re wanted than somewhere you want to go. Wednesday is for the Division I guys for the most part.”

The dream to continue playing football — at some level — will be granted for many, but what our athletes do with the gift of education is strictly under their control. National Signing Day’s a headline maker, but it means very little big picture when less than 2 percent of prep seniors will play major college football.

Their chances of making an impact in the workforce are far greater.

“Eventually, people in this county have to realize that football isn’t going to be there forever,” Greene said. “I want to be around football the rest of my life, but I don’t have to necessarily do that by playing. I can coach with my degree.”

Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.